Chasing Tornadoes: Tenacious Or Twisted?

Andrew Smith is a contributor for CBSNews.com.
Somewhere in the back of my reptile brain I seem to remember that in Psych 101 I learned the "fight or flight" response. In other words, know when to hold 'em and know when to run like mad. I was reminded of that when I saw the footage of the recent Greensburg tornado shot by a so-called "storm chaser." (You can get a glimpse of that amazing video in the monitor on the left.)

What kind of person goes looking for a tornado -- and then, finding one, tries to gets as close as possible, so he can take its picture?

When Katie posed that question at a recent meeting, our CBSNews.com news director, Mike Sims, quietly raised his hand and said, "Well, I guess that would be me." Mike worked at our CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City and, along with meteorologist Gary England, he directed the station's professional tornado tracking teams in the gathering of crucial storm data that saves thousands of lives each tornado season. Before that, he actually chased tornadoes himself as a radio reporter.

They're called "storm chasers" and far from being a rare breed, apparently we've got more of them than we realize.

Mike had his own adventures when he ran his team of official storm chasers. "I remember being on the two way radio with our helicopter pilot, who told me 'I think maybe we ought to pull back a little. We're starting to get sucked in'" But Mike then referred me to his former cohort, Gary England, at KWTV in Oklahoma City for the real story. In fact Gary England was the weatherman in the movie "Twister."

Gary elaborated on Mike's description of the storm chasing business. He said there are presently three groups of people doing it. One group is the government who investigates tornadoes strictly for research. The video they shoot is never shown publicly.

The next group is his weather alert team at KWTV "News 9". He commands 6 teams of two people each of who are highly trained individuals with state of the art equipment who fan out when the conditions and forecasts indicate tornados to track and report on the location and direction of theses killer storms. Gary said these people, many of whom are trained meteorologists, operate under the strictest discipline and professionalism in order to bring the public life-saving information on exactly where the tornados are and where they're headed. As Gary points out, there's no known radar that can discern when and where a twister will actually touch down. This information can only be gathered by direct visual contact. And it is this information, especially at night, that his teams gather and report. He is very proud of them.

Then there is the third group. These are the ones I was most curious about. Gary calls them the "Yahoos". These are undisciplined, but sometimes highly equipped, amateurs who chase tornados for the "adrenaline rush" as chaser Reed Timmer put it when he was interviewed by Russ Mitchell on "The Early Show." He admitted to being totally "obsessed with seeing tornados" (It makes the whole business sound vaguely like stalking). Mike Sims calls them "Weather Paparazzi", and the analogy is apt, because they track a storm with a fervor that is only matched by photographers on the prowl for Brad and Angelina.

Operating out of their cars with an array of computers, cell phones, radios, and weather equipment the Yahoos will log up to 50,000 miles a year chasing tornados from one end of the Midwest to the other.

"Reed Timmer [the storm chaser interviewed by Russ Mitchell] has shot some great video" Gary said, "But recently, the stuff I've seen has made me question his wisdom." Gary has the same kind of respect for tornados that I have. He says they're "loud, ugly, mean, and nasty. And they will hurt you." He reports that although he can't recall any of the storm chasers actually being killed by a tornado itself, they do wreck havoc on the highways, and one was killed in traffic accident. And, apparently, there is one chaser from Kentucky who has armor-plated his car and plans to actually drive into the center of a funnel cloud. Gary claims he might get away with it in a minor twister, "But if he tries it with a big one he'll end up just like Dorothy, back in Kansas."
So I wasn't entirely wrong. Amateur storm chasing should come with its own warning label. "Don't try this at home unless you work for News 9, or if you're on the road, don't try this in your VW."

Yes, there is a legitimate reason for professionals to flirt with killer storms, but there is no good reason for a curious thrill-seeker to do it. Gary is dismayed by the pile of letters and e-mails he gets each week from kids telling him they want to become storm chasers and asking him where to sign up.

Recently Gary was reviewing some of the footage shot by his team on May 3, 1999 of some of the strongest twisters ever recorded. The winds were clocked at 318 MPH and were strong enough to "suck up the cement off the pavement." Gary remarked that his teams, to a man, were calm and cool and relayed the crucial data as if they were doing commentary at a golf match. The storm chasers, on the other hand, were all over the place that day "hoopin' and hollerin'" and basically producing useless footage and data.

And even if they had secured something worthwhile, there are so many of these storm chasing Yahoos out there now that even the best footage would bring would no more than $1500. Not enough to cover even a minor visit to the emergency room.

That's why I think I'll limit my own close encounters with bad weather to watching summer thunderstorms from my apartment window.